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Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky

Bohdan Zenoviy Khmelnytsky was one of the most influencial rulers of Eastern Europe, but not known as well as other great leaders such as Napoleon, because of the way he led the great Ukrainian uprising, or The Great Revolt of 1648 (Subtelny, 123).

Born about 1595, though the exact date and place is unknown, Khmelnytsky was the son of a minor Ukrainian nobleman named Mykhaylo Khmelnytsky. Mykhaylo served the royal Hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski and his son-in-law, Jan Danilowicz of Poland. For his good services, Mykhaylo obtained an estate in Subotiv. Bohdan was educated at a Jesuit College in Yaroslav where he studied the Polish and Latin languages. It was thought he also studied French. In 1620, his father was killed in the battle against the Poles at Cecora. Bohdan was taken captive by the Turks and held for two years until his mother collected enough ransom money. During these two years he mastered the Turkish and Tatar languages. This proved to be helpful to him later in his relations with Turkey and Tatary. Bohdan returned to Subotiv to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a Cossack (an idealistic, freedom-loving, gallant and independent man who fights for the well being of Ukraine and is ready to sacrifice his life for his country, his religion, and his freedom), married Hanna Somko and lived together on his estate in Subotiv.

After the signing of the Treaty of Borovytsia on December 24, 1637, Bohdan was elected Captain of the registered Cossacks in Chihiryn. He was part of a Cossack delegation to the Polish king, Wladyslaw IV in 1646. At this point in his career, he was 50 years old.

In 1646, while away from his estate, a Polish nobleman, with the aid of local magnates (a very important and influential person in any field of activity, especially in a large business), laid claim to Khmelnytsky’s estate, raided it, killed his yougest son, and kidnapped the woman that the recently widowed Bohdan intended to marry. This action gave him enough motivation to form a revolt againt the Poles. His life changed, and with it the course of Ukraine’s history.

Khmelnytsky organized supporters and plotted an uprising against the Polish landlords. Realizing that their cavalry was small, he seeked the aid of the Crimean Tatars, the Cossack’s traditional enemies. The timing was right, and an alliance against the Poles was formed. The Khan sent 4000 Tatars to aid the Cossacks.

As news traveled to the Poles about the revolt, Bohdan was forced to flee with his followers to the Zaporozhian Sich in January of 1648. He was welcomed graciously, but had to convince the Zaporozhians of his worthiness. His exceptional talents as an organizer, politician, and military leader, made all the difference. Soon after, he was elected as Hetman (highest military, administrative, and judicial office among Ukrainian Cossacks). Many battles were fought, and many lives were lost on all sides, even the innocent were casulties of this revolt as always like in any war.

The Bila Tserkva (White Church) agreement on September 28th of 1651 had to do with the lessening of the Hetman’s authority, forbidding him to have foreign contacts, and the reduction of Cossack forces to 20,000 troops. Most Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks were forced to deal with serfdom one more time. Thousands fled east to Muscovite territory what is now Kharkiv region. Khmelnytsky had absolutely no intention to abide by the treaty. Within a year the Polish army was completely destroyed at the border of Podilla and Moldavia.

On the January 18th in 1654, Khmelnytsky called a meeting with the Cossack elite and a decision was made. Ukraine needed an overlord and it was decided upon to be ruled by the Muscovite tsar. This meeting was held at Pereiaslav, near Keiv. The towns people were gathered and the Hetman spoke of a need for an overlord. He presented four candidates – the Polish king, the Tatar Khan, the Ottoman Sultan, and the Muscovite tsar. It was explained to the townspeople that this was decided upon at the prior meeting and that the Muscovite tsar was the best choice. The crowd understood and agreed. At the town church, the Pereiaslav Agreement was sealed and marked a turning point in the history of Ukraine, Russia, and all of Eastern Europe. Muscovy now had its foot in the door to becoming a great power.

Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky gave pride back to its people, and succeded in building the basis for a Ukrainian way of life. Without his efforts, the rebirth of the Ukrainian state would have been impossible.

Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

Nahayewsky, Isidore. History of Ukraine. 2nd edition. Philadelphia: “America” Publishing House of “Providence” Association of Ukrainian Catholics of America, 1975.

Webster, Noah. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language. Unabridged. 2nd Edition. New York: The Publishers Guild, Inc. 1963.

“Cossack’s Era”. http://insight.busadni.wayne.edu/irene/Cos.htm. Internet. 30 January 1997.

“Salus! Bohdan Khmelnytsky”. http://salus.zaporizhzhe.ua/zaporozhye/bohdan.htm. Internet. 24 October 1997.

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